The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of an Uber driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver’s seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn’t seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn’t brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.
The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.
Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.
But the real story is “robot kills human.” Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.
It makes sense to me that a world of exclusively driverless cars with a limited but known repertoire of moves might indeed be safer than our current world of human drivers. But trying to anticipate all the permutations of human behavior in the control systems for driverless car systems seems like a fool’s errand. I’m skeptical that the broad public will readily accept a mixed human/robot system of drivers on the roads. You can be courteous or rude to other drivers on the road or to pedestrians on the curb. But how can you make your intentions known to a robot? How could a pedestrian communicate with a robot car in the way that approaches the simplicity of a nod or a wave to acknowledge the courteous offer from a driver to let the pedestrian cross the street?
The idea that we can capture the complexities of human cognition, decision-making and even personality well enough to mimic them finds gruesome company in another idea that made the news recently: a startup firm that offers to preserve your brain in a chemical solution in the hope that the brain’s content can be uploaded into some future advanced technological matrix where you can live again.